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Actress Sandra Dee & A Summer Place: Sweet + Turbulent Youth

Actress Sandra DeeActress Sandra Dee was a hugely popular – and odd – cross between wholesome teen Deanna Durbin and tormented teen James Dean, going to school, catching waves, falling in love, and/or becoming pregnant out of wedlock.
  • The (unusual) big-screen embodiment of both “all-American” youthful wholesomeness and “all-American” youthful perdition, actress Sandra Dee was one of the most luminous Hollywood stars of the early 1960s.
  • Featuring Sandra Dee, Dorothy McGuire, Richard Egan, Troy Donahue, Arthur Kennedy, and Constance Ford, Delmer Daves’ trailblazing 1959 melodrama A Summer Place will be presented on March 12 on Turner Classic Movies.

Actress Sandra Dee enjoyed brief but notable stardom as the embodiment of wholesome + troubled ‘all-American’ youth

Ramon Novarro biography Beyond Paradise

For decades, it seems, actress Sandra Dee has been misremembered as Hollywood’s pert, pretty, blonde personification of “all-American” youthful wholesomeness, a sort of non-singing Deanna Durbin or Judy Garland, as attested by the late 1950s/early 1960s light comedies The Reluctant Debutante, Gidget, and Come September, plus a couple of “Tammy” movies.[1]

Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey’s song “Look At Me, I’m Sandra Dee,” from the stage (and later film) hit Grease, begins with the following lyrics:

Look at me, I’m Sandra Dee
Lousy with virginity
Won’t go to bed
Till I’m legally wed
I can’t, I’m Sandra Dee.

Yet Sandra Dee both could and did go to bed before she was legally wed, as seen in, to name one title, Delmer Daves’ 1959 blockbuster A Summer Place.

After all, Dee was also Hollywood’s pert, pretty, blonde personification of “all-American” youthful angst and rebelliousness, a sort of sweet-looking female James Dean, as attested not only by A Summer Place, but also by the melodramas Imitation of Life, The Restless Years, and Portrait in Black, and the comedy Doctor, You’ve Got to Be Kidding.

Good ‘loose’ girl

In fact, even in her “good girl” roles, one at times couldn’t quite tell how virginal Sandra Dee would remain before the final fadeout.

Case in point: Paul Wendkos’ aforementioned 1959 comedy Gidget, in which Dee’s bubbly, wave-catching character is surrounded by shirtless, beefy men in tight shorts. At one point, the 17-year-old herself attempts to seduce a thirty-something surfer, who may or may not be able to control himself.

That uneasy “good girl”/“loose girl” combo actually worked for a while. For four years in a row (1960–1963), U.S. exhibitors named Sandra Dee one of the top ten box office draws in the country.[2]

Those with access to Turner Classic Movies (U.S.) will be able to check out the high mark of Dee’s composite big-screen persona on March 12, as TCM will be presenting A Summer Place at 9:15 a.m. (EDT).

From child model to teen star

Initially a sought-after child model, New Jersey-born Sandra Dee (née Alexandra Zuck on April 23, 1942) began her movie career after signing with Universal producer Ross Hunter in the mid-1950s.

On loan to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, she made her film debut in Robert Wise’s World War II-set 1957 drama Until They Sail, which, though a box office flop, earned her a Golden Globe for Most Promising Female Newcomer (shared with Diane Varsi for Peyton Place and Carolyn Jones for Marjorie Morningstar).

The Sandra Dee-Ross Hunter collaboration, which would encompass a total of nine releases over the course of nearly a decade,[3] began with Helmut Käutner’s surprisingly effective small-town melodrama The Restless Years (1958), featuring Dee as Teresa Wright’s “illegitimate” daughter who, narrow Small Town U.S.A. minds fear, is having a torrid affair with traveling salesman’s son John Saxon. Will the baby-faced teenager follow in Mom’s footsteps?

While on loan to Warner Bros. in 1959, she shocked traditionalist audiences by following in her father’s footsteps in producer-director-screenwriter Delmer Daves’ envelope-pushing romantic melodrama A Summer Place, based on Sloan Wilson’s novel of the previous year.

Actress Sandra Dee A Summer Place Troy DonahueActress Sandra Dee in A Summer Place, with Troy Donahue. Having several key plot points in common with MGM’s 1929 Norma Shearer-Robert Montgomery hit Their Own Desire, this risqué 1959 romantic melodrama turned Dee into a major star.

A Summer Place: Family affairs

Set on an island resort off the coast of Maine, A Summer Place stars Richard Egan as a lifeguard turned research chemist who returns to his old haunts for a summer vacation with his wife (Constance Ford) and teenage daughter (Sandra Dee).

While on the island, the financially successful but emotionally dissatisfied chemist – his wife is a cold, degenerate prude – reignites an affair with an old flame (Dorothy McGuire), now the despondent spouse of the alcoholic owner (Arthur Kennedy) of the local inn/boarding house, which, in days gone by, had been the couple’s luxurious family mansion.

Compounding matters, the chemist’s daughter is enjoying her own passionate sea-breezed romance with a hunky blond teen (Troy Donahue) who happens to be the boarding house owners’ son.

The end result is an unplanned teen pregnancy that, rare for American movies up to that time, is depicted through a nonjudgmental lens. Indeed, neither the adulterous older couple nor the sexually active younger one has to do any long-term weeping or teeth-gnashing for their “sins.”

Defiant teen sex

If anything, the cruel and unusual punishment – for the adolescents – comes before the sex, indirectly becoming a catalyst for it.

In one sequence, the chemist’s wife demands a thorough, virginity-certifying examination of her daughter after learning that the girl has spent the night with her boyfriend on a deserted island.

Later on, in one of the most iconic scenes of the 1950s – parodied in John WatersFemale Trouble – the mother (“So you went to a motel!”) gives her daughter a whack that sends the teen flying into the family’s Christmas tree, bringing the whole thing down. From the twig- and broken-ornament-filled floor then comes a defiant “Merry Christmas, Mom.”

The teen sex is consummated later in the film. It’s as much an act of rebellion – against both pathological puritanism and adulterous parents – as one of passion.

A special place for A Summer Place

Boosted by veteran Max Steiner’s “Theme from A Summer Place” – via Percy Faith and his Orchestra’s recording, one of the best-known musical scores ever created for a movie – this late 1950s mix of well-established/fast-rising names, gorgeous locations (filmed in Northern California’s Monterey/Pacific Grove area), forbidden romance, “illicit” sex, and Christmas misery became a major commercial hit: An estimated $4.7 million (approx. $80 million in 2020) in domestic rentals (the slice of the total domestic gross that went to the studio).[4]

On a cultural level, A Summer Place – alongside 1959/1960 titles such as Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder, Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Suddenly, Last Summer, Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot, and Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho – helped to further impair Hollywood’s morality-policing Production Code, already limping since the release of Preminger’s 1953 comedy hit The Moon Is Blue.

Now, bear in mind that A Summer Place was only Sandra Dee’s second biggest blockbuster of the year.

Sandra Dee Imitation of Life Lana TurnerActress Sandra Dee in Imitation of Life, with Lana Turner. As in A Summer Place, things get rough between mother and daughter in Douglas Sirk’s 1959 blockbuster. The reason: Both women have eyes for the same man.

Imitation of Life: Mother-daughter sexual rivalry

A Ross Hunter production based on Fannie Hurst’s 1933 novel (previously filmed with Claudette Colbert in 1934), Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life emerged as one of Universal’s biggest box office hits since its founding in 1912: An estimated $6.4 million (approx. $110 million in 2020) in rentals.[4]

Adapted by veteran screenwriters Eleanore Griffin (Oscar co-winner for Boys Town, 1938) and Allan Scott (Oscar nominee for So Proudly We Hail!, 1943), this mothers-daughters (plural) sudser features Sandra Dee as the 16-year-old offspring of glamorous stage actress Lana Turner, both of whom desirous of the affections of Apollo-like John Gavin – ten years younger than Turner; nine years older than Dee.

In contrast to lighthearted fare like Universal’s own It’s a Date and its MGM remake, Nancy Goes to Rio, in which naive daughters Deanna Durbin/Jane Powell and worldly mothers Kay Francis/Ann Sothern vie for the affections of the same man, the romantic/sexual mother-daughter competition in Imitation of Life is to be taken as seriously as the ethnic-focused drama pitting “white” daughter Susan Kohner against black mom Juanita Moore.

As to be expected, the mature man ultimately hooks up with the “age appropriate” mature woman, but the teenage daughter doesn’t go from heartbreak to resignation to happiness with another teenager. Her resentment persists, possibly to be fully eradicated only after the death of a key character intercedes.

Virtue overpowers rebelliousness

The final noteworthy example of Sandra Dee’s mix of teen sweetness and teen insubordination is the Ross Hunter-produced, Michael Gordon-directed 1960 murder mystery Portrait in Black, with Lana Turner and Dee reunited as well-to-do but deeply troubled stepmother and stepdaughter.

Dressed and made up to look much more mature than her actual age, Dee’s baby-faced, baby-voiced young woman takes a passive-aggressive attitude toward her murderous stepmom while becoming romantically enmeshed with down-on-his-luck John Saxon.

Yet despite hints here and there of an insurgent side, Dee’s wholesome persona would easily overpower the disaffected one in just about every one of her star vehicles of the 1960s. Examples include Ross Hunter’s “Tammy” sequels Tammy Tell Me True and Tammy and the Doctor; and the three movies she made with Bobby Darin (her husband from 1960–1967): Come September, If a Man Answers (another Hunter release), and That Funny Feeling.

By mid-decade, moviegoers had apparently had enough.

Charming, unmarried & pregnant once more

Universal let contract actress Sandra Dee go after the 1966 spy comedy/thriller A Man Could Get Killed, in which she was billed below James Garner and Melina Mercouri.

The following year, Dee was seen in two comedies: At MGM, Peter Tewksbury’s Doctor, You’ve Got to Be Kidding!; back at Universal, David Lowell Rich’s Rosie!, co-starring veteran Rosalind Russell as the titular character.

Although neither title was a commercial hit, both were landmarks in Sandra Dee’s Hollywood career. In reverse order: The latter was her last collaboration with Ross Hunter; the former features Dee, as personable as ever, playing an unmarried young woman who happens to be not only pregnant but unashamed of her condition and unsure whether she should marry the father of the fetus (George Hamilton) or any one of three eager suitors (Bill Bixby, Dwayne Hickman, Dick Kallman).

Unfortunately, Dee’s movie career came to a halt at that time – the same year her marriage with Bobby Darin ended in divorce. There would be a failed attempted comeback via the 1970 thriller The Dunwich Horror; some TV work (e.g., the feature The Daughters of Joshua Cabe; guest spots in Night Gallery and, looking fantastic in her mid-30s, Fantasy Island); and one final big-screen role in the little-seen 1983 adventure drama Lost.

Having suffered from anorexia nervosa and later from severe alcoholism, Sandra Dee died at age 63 in February 2005 in the Los Angeles County-adjacent city of Thousand Oaks.

“Actress Sandra Dee & A Summer Place” notes

Tammy movies + domestic box office appeal

[1] Debbie Reynolds had the title role in Joseph Pevney’s unpretentious 1957 sleeper hit Tammy and the Bachelor. Universal’s two sequels starring Sandra Dee were Tammy Tell Me True (1961) and Tammy and the Doctor (1963), both directed by Harry Keller.

[2] At no. 16, Sandra Dee was also among U.S. exhibitors’ Top 20 domestic box office draws for the year 1959.

Actress Sandra Dee & producer Ross Hunter collaborations

[3] Sandra Dee and Ross Hunter’s nine features were the following:

  • The Restless Years (1958).
  • Stranger in My Arms (1959).
  • Imitation of Life (1959).
  • Portrait in Black (1960).
  • Tammy and the Doctor (1961).
  • If a Man Answers (1962).
  • Tammy Tell Me True (1963).
  • I’d Rather Be Rich (1964).
  • Rosie! (1967).

A Summer Place & Imitation of Life box office adjustments

[4] Based on the National Association of Theater Owners and the Motion Picture Association of America’s (via estimated average annual domestic movie ticket prices (not directly correlated to the Consumer Price Index).

In the last half century or so, a film’s total domestic box office gross has been about twice the “rentals” figure.

Though a more accurate reflection of a film’s popularity (i.e., the number of tickets sold), inflation-adjusted estimates should be taken with extreme caution. For example, original figures may be estimates themselves; besides, inflation-adjusted figures are based on average ticket prices whereas numerous major releases raked in a large chunk of their earnings at top-priced theaters.

“Actress Sandra Dee” endnotes

Troy Donahue and Sandra Dee A Summer Place image: Warner Bros.

Lana Turner and Sandra Dee Imitation of Life image: Universal Pictures.

“Actress Sandra Dee & A Summer Place: Sweet + Turbulent Youth” last updated in December 2021.

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